The Late Show April 4, 2015
Ira Wells (Art Carney) is a wheezing, semi-retired private dick who is more likely to meet your concerns with a disinterested eye roll than with genuine interest. Margo (Lily Tomlin), on the other hand, is the definition of kooky: she designs every single piece of clothing she wears, is prone to babbling like a Woody Allen heroine, and isn’t afraid to ask wheezing, semi-retired private dicks (see what I did there) if they would be interested in helping them find their recently catnapped kitty. They drive each other mad — Ira is too quiet and Margo is too talkative — but I’ll be damned if they don’t make for a fantastic, if eccentric, detective duo. They’re like Nick and Nora Charles, Margo muses at one point, minus the opulence, sex, marriage, doggy sidekick. These days, ulcer related episodes, madcap car chases, tawdry villains, and cat starring plot devices will have to do.
I love The Late Show. I love that it isn’t quite a comedy or a neo-noir romp, existing somewhere cheekily in-between. I love Ira’s contagious bitterness and his old-school haggardness, unafraid to call a woman a dolly instead of an actual name, unafraid to walk around silently when his eyes are quoting Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. I love the hilarious weirdness Tomlin brings to Margo, and how she can deliver snappy lines at lightning speed like it’s no big deal. This is an intelligent movie made by intelligent people (Robert Atman is the executive producer), one that is both entertaining enough for the casual viewer and whip-smart enough for buffs seeking out something kinda Foul Play and something kinda The Long Goodbye.
When we are first introduced to Ira Wells, he wants to take a break from sleuthing. The world, however, is much too seedy for him to really take a break from cases. This notion becomes abundantly clear when an old friend shows up on his doorstep, shot in the stomach, dead only a few seconds later. Poor Ira. With his hearing aids, huge gut, and greying hairline, he’s so unhealthy looking that he seems like the kind to go to a local diner, ask for the senior menu, only to suddenly have a heart attack. But whatever. Crime comes calling, you may as well answer back. After the funeral, he is approached by, you guessed it, Margo, inquiring about, you guessed it, her stolen cat. Ira takes the case, hesitantly, I might add, but much to his dismay, he finds that the situation is much more complicated than it seems. After years of thinking he’s probably seen it all, he becomes tangled in a big ole mess of deceit, murder, and deadly femmes. The usual.
But The Late Show is hardly a Harper or a Farewell, My Lovely. Ira is way too old to still be in the game, and a woman like Margo should not be tagging along as his Lauren Bacall. I can’t say that The Late Show knows this and “runs with it”, because it doesn’t necessarily run with it. It knows that it concocts a questionable situation, but instead of trying to make things outrageously zany to match the oddness, it just shrugs and lets things happen. Funny things. Tomlin is a ball of fire, inhabiting a role Barbara Stanwyck or Katharine Hepburn might have landed in their respective glory days; her chemistry with Carney is so backward that we can’t help but sit back and wonder aloud how these two will ever get along. When they do, for better or worse, the rapport is wondrous. When they don’t, the rapport is still wondrous. With Tomlin in tow, the mandatory “detecting” scenes become electric after years of cynicism: who knew that a shady run-in with a suspicious wife and a dead body could ring with such infectious humor?
As the ending approached, I found myself not wanting The Late Show to end. I liked these people. And akin the best of comedies, this one is effortlessly engaging. A